The Android operating system from Google has been criticized for not doing enough to protect users privacy. The good news is that you can update settings on your phone to increase both your privacy and security. The bad news is that if you are not familiar with Android it can be a daunting task to try and figure out what you actually need to change.
Fear not, I’ll walk you through the critical changes you need to make in order to take back some of your privacy and make your phone more secure.
While I’ll do my best to give you instructions on how to change these settings, please note that there are many different versions of Android and each phone manufacturer may set up their menus differently.
This can mean that some of the locations of the settings might be different on your phone. However it should still be easy to find them and if you are having difficulty you can use the search function at the top of the Settings menu to easily find the setting you are looking for.
I’ve broken these changes down into three sections. The basic settings I think everyone should change on their phones, limiting the information you send to google without compromising usability, and a final review of privacy and security settings.
Basic Privacy Settings For Your Android Phone
I’ll first walk you through the essential settings you’ll want to change to make your cell phone more secure and take back some of your privacy.
Set A Strong Password
One of the best things you can do is to protect your privacy is to set a password on your phone. The stronger and longer the better, try to go beyond a basic 4-digit pin. On most modern Android phones this will also enable your phones encryption, protecting the data on your device and making your phone even more secure from prying eyes if your phone is misplaced or stolen.
While you can also use face detection or your fingerprint to lock your phone, a strong password is a better option for the security conscious. You may be compelled in some states to unlock your phone with your fingerprint or your face.
To set your password on an Android phone:
Settings > Security & Privacy > Lock Screen Password
Encrypt Your Device
As mentioned in the previous step, many recent Android come with encryption enabled by default. When you setup your device for the first time it will ask you to set a password, and once completed your phone should be encrypted. However, many users will need to do this themselves and it is fairly easy to do. And if you aren’t sure if your device is encrypted you can follow the same steps to check.
Unfortunately, some older or less powerful phones don’t support encryption. Starting on Android 10, google has introduced a new encryption protocol and all devices should have encryption enabled by default.
To set or check encryption on your Android Device:
Settings > Security > Encrypt Device
Change Lock Screen Sleep Timeout
If you’ve setup a password for your phone in the above steps, you may need to adjust the time before your phone locks automatically. A short time frame such as two minutes should be sufficient to keep away prying eyes if you step away from your phone and don’t lock it manually.
Settings > Display > Sleep
Lock Screen Notifications
Most phones will have lock screen notifications turned on by default. These are the notifications you get on the lock screen. It may show a simple weather alert or the contents of a private message that you don’t want others to see.
You may want to consider keeping the notifications but limiting them from displaying the contents until you unlock your phone. You can either do this for all notifications or selecting only certain apps like email and messaging apps from displaying their contents.
To limit all applications:
Settings > Notifications > Lock Screen Notifications
Set to: Show but hide contents
To limit specific applications:
Settings > Notifications
- Scroll through the list of apps and tap the one you want to change
- Tap General then Lock Screen Notifications
- Set to: Show but hide contents
- Repeat for all applications you want to limit
Turn off NFC and Bluetooth till they are needed
If you don’t use NFC or Bluetooth very often consider turning them off until they are needed. It will also drain the battery a little less along with being a good privacy and security measure
Settings > Device Connectivity
Ads Opt Out and Reset Ad Id
Google assigns every account an advertising ID and opts you into ad personalization. Opting out helps to stop apps from using your ID to build profiles on you and showing you personalized ads which many people find these types of ads to be a bit creepy at a minimum and many find them an overt invasion of their privacy.
In addition, resetting the advertising ID every now and then can help to hinder collection of your personal information for ad purposes.
To Opt Out and reset your Advertising ID:
Settings > Google Services > Ads
Reconsider Using Google’s Services
At this point Google’s built-in applications are so tightly integrated with Android it is tough to get around using them, especially is you already use many of them like Gmail, Keep, Calendar, and Drive.
For added privacy you can use more secure options from other companies. If you use a secure email like Proton Mail or TutaNota, they have their own apps. If you want a note taking app, you can switch from Keep to Standard Notes. There are many options for Google Alternatives.
Since many people are tied to the Google ecosystem, switching may not be an option, at least not in the short term, as it can take a bit of effort to de-Google yourself.
Below we’ll cover some additional google services on your phone you may want to reconsider using if you are looking to protect your privacy. Whether you wish to disable them will be a personal decision. Many of the features and functionality that make smartphones so popular come at the cost of sending personal data to Google. I’ll do my best to highlight the pros and cons and let you decide if privacy or functionality is more important.
Browsers and Search
If you don’t want google tracking all your searches and web browsing, select from one of the many non-Google alternative. Use a different browser and change the default search engine.
Browsers: Firefox, Firefox Focus, Brave, DuckDuckGo.
Disable Cloud Based Backup
Backing up your device can be a lifesaver if you phone dies or is lost. Your contacts, photos, videos, apps, settings, and more can all be saved to the cloud and recovered using Google’s backup service.. But for some people having an unencrypted version of all your personal data saved on Google Drive is a real privacy problem.
Whether trading your privacy for the security of knowing your personal data can be restored in the event of a catastrophe will be a personal choice. While there are ways to backup your Android phone to your PC, it is not as simple and easy as automated cloud backups.
The decision is yours, but if you want to turn off your cloud backup:
Settings > System > Backup & Restore > Backup To Google
Settings > Google Services > Backup > Back up to Google Drive
Find My Device
Find My Device is another of the Android options that is both a handy feature and a privacy concern. If you misplace your device it can have the phone ring for five minutes while you try and locate it around the house or in the car. It can also allow you to find, lock, and erase device remotely if you think it might have been lost or stolen.
However, in order to do this it requires your device to constantly send your location information back to Google. If that isn’t a concession you are willing to make, you can turn off this feature.
Settings > Security & Privacy > Find My Device
Location and Location History
Allowing certain applications to use your location is very helpful, especially if you use google maps for navigation. While you can turn off location sharing for your entire device, you may want to instead just limit which applications have access to your location information.
To review which apps you want to have access to your location information, go to:
Settings > Apps > Permissions > Location
You’ll probably find lots of applications enabled that have no need to have access to your location. You can toggle those to off. If you accidentally turn off access to an app needs location to function properly, it will alert you the next time you need it and give you an option to reenable it.
If you want to go full stealth mode and turn off location for everything you can do this by:
Settings > Google Services > Account Services > Location
You may also want to go into Advanced Settings consider turning off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Scanning as well.
You should also go into your Google account and turn off location history and delete previous data. You can do this through the my account dashboard.
Another very useful application that leaks your private information and will even send voice recordings of things you say back home to Google. If you don’t use the Assistant it’s best to turn it off completely. Again this will be a personal choice as the easy of use provided by the Assistant is one of the many benefits people love about smartphones.
How to turn off Google Assistant on Android:
Settings > Google Services > Account Services > Search, Assistant & Voice > Google Assistant > Assistant
- Scroll down to Assistant Devices
- Tap: Phone
- Toggle off Google Assistant
Android Settings To Review
After you’ve made the changes to your privacy and security settings on your Android smartphone, it’s a good idea to review a few key areas and make sure the settings haven’t been inadvertently disabled or changed and that permissions are properly restricted. I’ll walk you through some of those key areas below.
Installing Apps from Unknown Sources
This should be enabled by default on all Android phones. It keeps apps being installed from any place other than the Play Store. It helps stop potential malicious software being installed without your knowledge.
Settings > Security > Install apps from unknown sources
Review App Permissions
Spend a little time going through and limiting the permissions on your apps to make sure they don’t have access to data they don’t need. For example, a flashlight app doesn’t need access to your location data.
There are a couple ways to do this, by app or by permission. I find doing it by permission easier.
To view permissions by app:
Settings > Apps > Apps
To view by permission:
Settings > Apps > Permissions
Turn off Activity History and Minimize the data google collects
This can be done in your google account. I personally turn off all data collection and delete any previously collected data. This includes Web & App, Location, and Youtube activity. Select which options work best for you.
On Your Phone:
Settings > Google > Manage Google Account
On The Web: https://myactivity.google.com/myactivity
Select ‘Activity Controls’ from the menu on the left side
Multiple Accounts – Go through all settings for each account
If you have multiple google accounts associated with your smartphone, you’ll need to make sure that any settings you have updated is done across all accounts. This can be a pain, but is necessary to make sure the privacy options are set correctly.
Review Apps Syncing to the cloud
Some apps sync data to the cloud. For example Whatsapp will continuously sync your contacts with the Whatsapp servers unless you decide to turn it off. Take a look and review which apps are syncing to the cloud and look for any app that seem out of place.
Settings > Users & Accounts
Review Default Apps
Review your default apps and if you decided to use more privacy friendly options like Firefox for your browser, you can change them to your default here.
Settings > Apps > Default Apps
Run Google’s Security Checkup
It’s a good idea to run Google’s Security Checkup a few times a year. It will give you any potential security issues that it finds and encourage you to update you recovery information or remove accounts from devices that haven’t been used in a long time.
Use A VPN
Last but not least when it comes to Android privacy is to start using a VPN. If you aren’t familiar with what a VPN is, it is a software application you install on your phone that creates an encrypted connection to the VPN companies server.
When combined with a privacy centric browser and search engine (Firefox and DuckDuckGo) it helps keeps your internet activity away from the spying eyes of your ISP/Mobile phone carrier and companies like Google. There are many other benefits as well, but I’ll save that for another article.